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Pissed Off About Illegal Immigration? Blame the White Guys in Suits

With immigration reform in the news, it's important to understand what drives people to cross borders.
 
 
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The conventional wisdom holds that the one item on President Obama's second-term agenda that has a realistic shot at passing the GOP-controlled House is immigration reform.

But that's based on an analysis of traditional political incentives that appears to be badly outdated. While it's certainly true that the Republican establishment desperately wants to stop being identified as a party marked by xenophobia, at the district level an unprecedented number of representatives are insulated from any electoral blowback they might incur by thwarting reform.

We shall see how it plays out. In any event, with immigration policy in the news, we spoke with Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, about what drives immigration and how Washington might approach reforming a system that just about everyone agrees is dysfunctional.

Joshua Holland: Republicans took their second consecutive spanking among Latinos, Asian Americans and other hyphenated groups, and all of sudden we seem to have a moment in which real immigration reforms might be possible.

Before we get to the latest proposals, I want people to understand a larger issue here: the push-and-pull factors that have driven a major wave of immigration from Mexico to the United States over the last 15 years.

Bill Ong Hing: Yes. One of the big issues, of course, that’s central to the debate is about undocumented Mexican migration. What people don’t realize is because of trade policies, most notably NAFTA, much of the unemployment that has arisen in Mexico over the last 15 years is a result of trade policies. Mexico is put in a position where it’s very difficult for Mexico to compete with U.S. products.

One of the prime examples of that is corn. For example, if you travel in Mexico today, it turns out that the corn that Mexicans buy is actually U.S. corn, because Mexican corn farmers cannot compete with subsidized U.S. corn. It’s understandable why corn farmers have gone out of business. More noticeably their workers have looked to the north for work.

JH: Unlike the United States, where I think 2% of our country is employed in the agricultural sector, agriculture provided a good chunk of Mexican employment, right?

BOH: That’s a very good point. Mexico has a huge percentage that’s still an agirian population. That’s why Mexico got the short end of the stick when it came to NAFTA. In contrast, Canada has very little dependence on farming and agriculture. Canada actually turned out to be fine when it came to the NAFTA trade agreement.

JH: People need to understand that as long as these trade deals have been around, the countries of the global north have been promising -- any day now -- that they’ll get rid of their agricultural subsidies, because they do a lot of damage in the global south, and they never quite get around to it. It’s interesting, because we always ask for more market liberalization on their side -- we need to strengthen our pharmaceutical patents, and stuff like that -- but what we’ve been promising them for 20 years has never come into fruition.

Bill: In fact, the Farm Bill is a big piece of legislation that every year, when Congress gets around to it, it just continues these huge subsidies. Listen, that’s fine maybe for some farmers. Most of the farmers benefited from those subsidies in the United States are actually pretty big business. They’re not family farms anymore.

JH: The context here is that Mexico had a little baby-boom in the early 1980s, and then toward the end of that decade they had a peso crisis. It was almost a perfect storm that propelled a major wave of immigration from Mexico, starting right around when NAFTA was signed.

 
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